Waggish

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 3)

Lisa Samuels edited and wrote an extensive introduction for the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Laura Riding’s 1928 collection of essays and stories, Anarchism Is Not Enough. Lisa has also published three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), as well as several chapbooks. She teaches at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

What influence did Schuyler Jackson have on Riding, and what was the nature of their working relationship?

LS: I think Schuyler Jackson was ‘bad’ for Riding – one might say they were ‘bad’ for each other, encouraging the most self-generating sense of How Things Ought To Be. But that judgment is from the perspective of the world that wants more writing, please, from talented and imaginatively liberated persons. I think Schuyler and Laura found in each other the freedom to articulate a perfect world of dialectic-toward-agreement kindness and prescriptive verbal accuracy. Riding had started writing what became Rational Meaning before they met, having a contract in the 1930s with an English publisher (I forget which one, probably Cape) for a unique sort of Dictionary. Schuyler became part of her project, and it is hard to say exactly what part he played in the details of that tome. Laura is careful to insist on his co-authorship in the Prefaces, but she would be careful, given her history with such matters (her own practical exclusion from co-authorship attribution for work she did with Graves, especially on A Survey of Modernist Poetry, which of course was the impetus for William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as Empson noted in the first edition – leaving Riding off the list of authors of the Survey and then in the second edition eliding entirely his debt to Riding’s and Graves’s book).

Riding steadfastly resisted being categorized with any identity group. To what extent do you think her “outsider” status, rejected or not, influenced her writing?

LS: Riding’s father was a firebrand Socialist, and her New York upbringing would have been at times infused with issues of how language shapes people’s thinking. I certainly think her writing evinces clear ‘woman writer’ identities, even as Riding resisted being labeled a woman writer (and for good reason, given how overt sexism was allowed to be in those days, not least in intellectual communities and not least in the U.S.).

Being an outsider, as woman and Jew and daughter (and remember how overt anti-Semitism was also allowed to be back then) in such a heated political climate, no doubt contributed to her urge to investigate ordinary language. But one might say the same for many persons at the time, so we have to make room for an element of inborn linguistic obsessions that translated into her poetry. Her investigations of ordinary language in part led her to push against genre boundaries, and that pushing might be seen as a healthy aspect of Riding’s work to retain her ‘outsider’ status.

I see in your own poetry a mixture of the high and low, the particular and the general, the abstract and the concrete. Do you intend a dialectical approach?

LS: I don’t intend the poems to elicit dialectical responses, but others have also remarked on the mixed levels of code, word class, etc. Dialogic, perhaps. A kind of overarching catachretic metaphoricity. For my part, that happens when I close my eyes and write. And I think it’s a not uncommon phenomenon in contemporary urban experiments with poetry. I’ve been exposed to a number of countries and languages in my life, and it may be that the urban experience of globalization is leading many contemporary poets to mix different rhetorics together in close proximity.

Particularly in your latest book, The Invention of Culture, I noticed the frequent use of “you” in your poetry, not to address the reader but as a third person, sometimes an interlocutor and sometimes a listener, but usually a physical presence in the poem.

LR: I think you have spoken to the heart of the matter: ‘a physical presence in the poem.’ My compositional imaginaries are always spatial and repeatedly visited by relations to an other or a self-as-other, sometimes in the form of language as a pronominal being, sometimes in the form of composite, dream-like others that exhort or are exhorted.

What contemporary poets do you see as working within the verbal and philosophical tradition that Riding deeply ploughed?

LR: In the UK, Alan Halsey (he’s more overtly literary-historical about it), J H Prynne, Marianne Morris (she’s more cheerful about it), Keston Sutherland, and in the U.S. Leslie Scalapino, Stacy Doris, Barrett Watten, and Justin Katko come to mind, and from Canada Lisa Robertson, from Germany Ulf Stolterfoht (whom I read in translation). Not that there aren’t many other interesting writers, but I’m trying to think of poets who interrogate the word, and syntax, and power, and the acculturated body in relation to those.

In “Jocasta,” one of Riding’s critical works collected in Anarchism is Not Enough, she writes, partially by way of criticizing Oswald Spengler and Wyndham Lewis:

Man’s powers from for reconstructing reality are really a misuse of his powers for constructing himself out of the wreckage which is reality. The only true entity possible to man is an analytic entity: the synthetic entities of art are all parodies of self.

What is Riding prescribing here, for the artist and for the reader?

LR: If I were to paraphrase the two sentences, I might write this:

Normative mimetic works are an abuse of the possibility of works that keep us in accurate (constant, vibrating) relation to radical contingency. A resolved picture is a false image.

Psychological symbolism, in this view, is another form of normative mimesis (if you take at face value the kind of interiority portraits that Virginia Woolf and Henry James were going for).

I think Riding did want people to be ‘liberated’ into a ‘responsible’ relationship to art. That is prescriptive, but she couldn’t tell people how to be in this relationship exactly or they wouldn’t have access to the radical contingency her early writing self was transacted by (I think her later writing self was too; but it becomes much more complicated). The contradiction is inescapable, and I don’t try to resolve it.

My thanks to Lisa Samuels for agreeing to this interview and for taking the time to respond in depth to my questions.

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